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Ryan Johnson, Published September 12 2012

Petition fraud case could lead to North Dakota law changes

FARGO – The case of petition fraud that forced two would-be initiated measures off North Dakota’s November election ballot could prompt a change in state law, including a possible upgrade of the charge from a misdemeanor to a felony.

Secretary of State Al Jaeger said he discussed the matter with Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem shortly after they became aware of forged signatures on petitions for initiated measures to legalize medicinal marijuana and create a conservation fund.

“That came up very quickly after it was discovered and the realization this is only a misdemeanor,” Jaeger said. “He immediately responded and said we need to look at this and that it should be raised to a felony.”

Fifteen people, including 10 current and three former North Dakota State University football players, were charged late last week with forging thousands of signatures on the two petitions. Currently, the crime is a Class A misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of one year in prison, a $2,000 fine or both.

Rep. Bob Skarphol, R-Tioga, said he doesn’t plan to introduce any legislation to toughen the penalty for election fraud. But the proposal likely will come up in the next legislative session that starts in January.

“I suspect there will be conversations about it,” he said.

Rep. Al Carlson, R-Fargo, also won’t be introducing a bill on the matter. But he said based on the number of lawmakers he’s heard talking about it, it’s likely other legislators already are authoring a bill.

“There’s a lot of people pretty upset about the fact that that happened and that there was a whole bunch of people who legitimately signed their name who now are going to be denied the right to vote on an issue,” he said. “So, it’s going to be an issue that’ll come up.”

But Carlson said the Legislature should take a look at the overall initiated measure process, not just signature-gathering fraud.

“If we’re going to look at the issue, let’s look at the whole issue because initiated measures and referendums are an important part of North Dakota and the people love to vote on the issues,” he said. “We don’t take that lightly, but you should look at the whole thing.”

That could include conversations on raising the number of signatures to get a measure on the ballot, he said, as well as new requirements that the signatures come from across the state, not just residents of the state’s largest cities.

Carlson said it also could be a good time to look at the “pay-for-hire” signature- gathering process used in the two failed measures, with supporters hiring private companies and teams of workers to collect residents’ signatures to secure spots on the ballot.

“This was meant to be a North Dakota initiative for North Dakota voters for North Dakota citizens, and you’ve got to be very careful when outside influences get involved,” he said.

Jaeger said his office staff quickly realized this fraud case would become big news, especially with so many NDSU football players among those accused of the forgeries.

“But we have to go through the process,” he said. “It doesn’t make any difference who they are or what their connection is. Fraud is fraud, and we had to pursue it.”

Petition timeline

• Sept. 4: The North Dakota attorney general and secretary

of state identify eight current NDSU football players among those facing charges for petition fraud. Bison head coach Craig Bohl says he will let the legal process play out before deciding on discipline. Gene Taylor, the school’s athletic director, backs that stance.

• Sept. 8: After the Bison defeat Colorado State, and one day after charges are filed against 10 current players, Taylor says none of them will be suspended. “As far as we are concerned, it is over,” he said.

• Sept. 10: Bohl says there will be “some type of discipline” over the petition fraud, though it won’t be suspensions.

• Sept. 11: NDSU President Dean Bresciani sends a campuswide email to “offer some clarification” about disciplinary policies. He said because the university’s process has not been widely reported, “some have perceived that the University is not taking action, or not acting quickly, which is not the case.”

• Sept. 12: Bresciani issues a follow-up statement: “Contrary to what has been suggested or implied, no decisions have been made” about disciplinary action. He apologizes for “confusion caused by our athletics department comments” about discipline of students.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587